Water Wars Threaten California Delta

What has been historically a place for hard fought battles amongst anglers is becoming the site for an escalated series of battles in California's ongoing water wars.

About the author

Dan O'Sullivan

Dan O'Sullivan

Dan O’Sullivan is an outdoor journalist from Loomis, Calif., and a member of the California Federation Nation board of directors. He and his wife have three daughters. He's the managing editor of AdvancedAngler.com.

As a fishery, the California Delta has been host to some significant moments in bass fishing history — the invention of flippin' by Dee Thomas, Robert Lee's four BASS victories, Mark Tyler's 14-pound, 9-ounce largemouth in 1999 that still stands as the biggest ever caught in BASS competition.

 What has been historically a place for hard fought battles amongst anglers is becoming the site for an escalated series of battles in California's ongoing water wars. The California state government, along with the state's corporate agricultural businesses, has set out to change the flow of the state's most important waterway and freshwater fishery.

 The California Delta is a complex maze of man-made levees holding the majority of California's most valuable commodity — water. While largely known for its connection to the San Francisco Bay, the Delta eventually receives water that is released from Shasta Dam, which receives water from the Sacramento River, the McCloud River and the Pit River; from Oroville Dam, which holds back the north, middle and south forks of the Feather River; from Folsom Dam, that contains both forks of the American River.

 Along with northern California's three largest watershed storage reservoirs, the heart of the Delta is the San Joaquin River which counts the Mokelumne, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and Calaveras rivers among its tributaries. In short, the vast majority of fresh water from northern California and the eastern Sierra Mountains finds its way to the California Delta.

 The Delta receives fresh water from the Sacramento River on its west and the San Joaquin from the east. The majority of the water from the Sacramento flushes past the Delta to the San Francisco Bay, while the San Joaquin flows directly to the City of Tracy.

 Tracy, and its Clifton Court Forebay, at the bottom of the Delta, is home to two pumps — one state and one federal, that remove fresh water from the Delta system for transport to southern California and the Central Valley, for drinking water as well as agricultural irrigation.

 Due to court rulings on the endangered status of the Delta Smelt, a native to the waterway and a forage fish that makes up one of lower foundations of the Delta food chain, those pumps have been kept quiet for some time. They feed the California Aqueduct, the main water supply to Southern California and the Central Valley.

 The State of California, with its Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, a series of projects for which planning began in 2008, is attempting to re-route much of the water supply of the Delta. Among the parts of the plan is a "New Conveyance," a new 500-foot wide canal that will remove fresh water from the Sacramento River above the Delta and shuttle it around the heart of the Delta to Tracy. This is a resurrected version of the Peripheral Canal rejected by voters in 1982.

 Opponents of this new canal say the amount of fresh water being removed from the Sacramento River will result in much of the Delta being turned into a shallow, saltwater marsh.

 Dick Poole, the owner of Pro Troll Lures, and a member of the American Sportfishing Association's Board of Directors, said that the outcome of the change would be catastrophic. "Removing that much fresh water from the Sacramento River would result in the extinction of the Central Valley salmon and steelhead runs," Poole said. "Two are already in danger, but this project would destroy it."

 Along with the new canal, a series of tide control gates will be established, two permanently in the western Delta and two in the central Delta as long term temporary solutions, to allow fresh water flow into the system on high tide to be contained as the tide begins to turn for the outflow.

 In an effort to restore native fish species, part of the plan is the eradication of (presumably by poisoning the waterway) "non-native predatory species" that proponents of the BDCP say threaten indigenous Delta Smelt, Longfin Smelt and salmonid populations (Conservation Strategy, page 171 OSCM24). While not stated, this part of the BDCP specifically targets striped bass, largemouth bass and every other non-native predatory species in the waterway.

 Longtime Delta guide and regional professional angler Bobby Barrack of Oakley, Calif., said that the proposed legislation is more than crippling. "The moment they put in the first piece of the peripheral canal or begin 'eradicating' non-native species is a nail in the coffin for all of the businesses surrounding the Delta," Barrack said. "I guide on this waterway as a livelihood, and this will kill my business as well as every marina and hotel in the area that have built their lives around the Delta."

 As disturbing as the eradication of large quantities of gamefish is, even more alarming is the fact that the State of California has been working behind closed doors to develop the actions set forth in the BDCP. Committees are being formed, plans being made and sites are currently being tested for location of tide control gates and pumps that will feed the "New Conveyance."

 All of the execution of the BDCP appears to be falling under the newly restored California Water Commission, (Senate Bill 229) a seven member committee with four of its members appointed by the Governor, with increased authority over the Delta.

 "The state government has stated that the BDCP has been created to protect the Delta, but it doesn't appear to have any provision for the fishery, and they are trying to do this without input from the populace" Poole opined. "Governor Schwarzenegger and the majority of the state government appear to have very distinct leanings toward water movement, which makes them no help to our cause. Our only hope is that the federal government will intervene."

 Many organizations are opposed to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, including the California Striped Bass Association (www.striper-csba.com), California Delta Chamber and Visitors Bureau (www.californiadelta.org), California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (www.calsport.org), Restore the Delta (www.restorethedelta.org), Water 4 Fish (www.water4fish.org), several of the Delta water districts and the cities and five counties that comprise the Delta.

 Two gatherings will be held to influence state legislators into allowing all affected parties' voices to be heard. The first will be "The Million Boat Float," a mass flotilla of yachts, pleasure boats and fishing boats that will make its way from Antioch to downtown Sacramento on the Sacramento River on August 16 (www.millionboatfloat.org). Then, on August 17, a rally will be held at the state capital.

advertisement

advertisement